Writing without a full stop

Print edition : December 08, 2017

Krishna Sobti. Three of her books are in various stages of production. Photo: R.V. MOORTHY

Krishna Sobti (left) and Mridula Garg at Pratirodh, a convention of writers, artists, thinkers and academics, in New Delhi on November 1, 2015. Photo: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

The nonagenarian Hindi writer Krishna Sobti has been awarded the 53rd Jnanpith Award.

SHE may have spent a large part of her life in the age of overstatement, but Krishna Sobti, 92, is not known for coveting media attention or giving long interviews. Brevity, not hyperbole, has been her preferred mode of expression. She has been more of a recluse, although never a loner. Krishna Sobti has been maintaining a low profile for the past decade or so. Not even the conferment of the Jnanpith Award for 2017 drew her out of her self-imposed confines. She has not made an appearance at literary festivals or at author-signing events to mark the launch of a new work, which could provide an insight into the world of the author. Her literary works are all that she has shared with her readers for the past many years.

Even as the Hindi literary clique was abuzz with the announcement of the 53rd Jnanpith Award, Krishna Sobti stayed calm. It was like another day in her life. After all, awards were neither novel nor unprecedented for her. Nor did they have a special ring to them. She had the strength to turn down the Padma Bhushan in 2010 as she did not want her writing to be a prisoner of the state conscience. “As a writer, I have to keep a distance from the establishment,” she had said.

Not wishing to elaborate on her laurels is one thing, but Krishna Sobti has been known to call a spade a spade. In an interview to The Hind u in April, she drew attention to the politics of division and chasm practised by the government. “The war the present government is fighting against its own citizens now can destroy India,” she said, as she took a little detour recalling the horrors of the past. Partition, in retrospect, was bearable, not so the present challenges, she said.

“Those were different days, a different season in our country. We were so proud of our political leaders. India was poised to become a great democracy. Unfortunately, the opposite is now happening. All our great institutions are being taken over by radical elements,” she said.

Returning an award

This was some time after she returned her Sahitya Akademi Award and the Akademi’s fellowship in October 2015 in protest against the mob lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri (Uttar Pradesh) and the killing of Kannada writer and Sahitya Akademi Award winner M.M. Kalburgi. The noted English writer Nayantara Sahgal was the first to return her Sahitya Akademi Award in protest against the climate of intolerance. Soon the Hindi writer Uday Prakash, the Punjabi translator Chaman Lal, the Urdu novelist Rahman Abbas and several other writers returned their awards expressing concern over the rising intolerance.

The media, often driven by star power, faithfully jotted down the names of writers who returned their awards, without a care for their literary worth or seniority. Thus, Krishna Sobti’s name was at times found buried in the news reports. In a couple of reports, she was referred to as a Punjabi writer. It was, however, a telling comment on the rich usage of Punjabi in her works, so much so that one critic had even commented, somewhat disparagingly: “She writes Punjabi in Hindi.”

Krishna Sobti, who leads a life of limited public occupation, confining herself largely to writing at her Mayur Vihar flat in east Delhi, did not protest against this uncalled-for diminution. The issue she had spoken against was far more important than the media’s ignorance. She did not utter a word about the English media rushing to quote the likes of Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and even William Dalrymple on the controversy.

To Krishna Sobti, all that mattered was that she had expressed her views through her action. The Sahitya Akademi award was returned and the government was rattled. That is all that mattered to her. Incidentally, the media’s ignorance about the worth of living Indian writers like Krishna Sobti was evident a few years ago when her much-acclaimed novel, Zindaginama , was released in an English translation by Neer Kanwal Mani with Moyna Mazumdar. When the publishers sent the first copies of the book to the media, some mediapersons wondered aloud: “Isn’t it the title of a book by Amrita Pritam?”

Krishna Sobti chose to keep her counsel, not wishing to reopen a chapter that had long been closed. The half-knowledge some critics were displaying stemmed from the more than two decades-long legal battle she was engaged in with Amrtia Pritam over the title of the book. Krishna Sobti stood her ground quietly, steadfastly. And when confronted with the greater fame of Amrita Pritam, she famously shot back: “Who knows a Hindi writer in Delhi?”

Relevance of ‘Zindaginama’

Incidentally, Zindaginama teems with contemporary relevance. Called “an abridged Mahabharata of our times” by the Hindi poet Ashok Vajpeyi, the novel is set in a small pre-Partition village. Here, people of different faiths and castes live peacefully, their reverie broken only by the news of riots and social tension from the cities and newspapers. It was supposed to be a part of a trilogy that Krishna Sobti never completed. Studded with Punjabi, Persian, Urdu and Sanskrit, Zindaginama is notable for its blend of Sufi poetry, references to the Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah, Heer-Ranjha, the Mughal era Punjabi Muslim Sufi poet Bulle Shah and ancient Sanskrit slokas. The book talks about open defecation (through the character of Kalu Badshah), and even more pertinently, Krishna Sobti refers to the authorities who do not tolerate criticism and persecute those whose songs or work challenges their dictatorial ways. Krishna Sobti wrote the book in 1979 and won the Sahitya Akademi Award for it. And to think that it was over the title of this very work that she was engaged in a legal tussle with Amrita Pritam. The book was translated into Punjabi by the novelist Gurdial Singh, who, as luck would have it, was conferred the Jnanpith Award in 1999, years before Krishna Sobti was to win it. Many litterateurs see the award as an attempt at correction of past mistakes. Professor Chaman Lal said: “Perhaps it was a burden on the conscience of the selectors headed by Namvar Singh who had awarded less deserving candidates earlier. The reputation of Jnanpith as the most respected literary award was at stake.”

Krishna Sobti, meanwhile, continued to do what she is best at doing: write. A few months shy of 93, three of her books are in various stages of production. It is the confidence in the written word and her abiding loyalty to the values that she holds that have stood her in good stead through a four-generation-long career, during which she has seen the likes of Nirmal Verma, Phanishwar Nath Renu and others depart from the scene, and the likes of Ashok Vajpeyi and Uday Prakash hold up the banner for the literary community.

When Krishna Sobti was young (she was born in Pakistan’s Gujrat in undivided Punjab, and divided time between Shimla, Lahore and Delhi as a young adult), she began writing in a unique voice, her Hindi was laced generously with Punjabi and Urdu words. To old-timers, it seemed like the death knell of the language chosen as the medium of expression by Malik Mohammad Jayasi, Ras Khan and Tulsidas. Many cautioned her against such usage. Her predicament was somewhat similar to that of the poet-lyricist Gulzar, who too has had to withstand criticism for the use of non-Urdu words in his shayaris. Krishna Sobti listened to her conscience and continued to plough a lonely furrow. The fact that she was surrounded by the then upcoming literary figures such as Nirmal helped.

Rebellious spirit

The sign of rebellion manifested itself early. As a young girl, she rode horses, an act of defiance back in the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, she inherited this ability to scoff at norms from her mother, who too rode horses and was a writer of some merit as well, although she did not quite challenge the established literary norms. Krishna Sobti went a step further: she defied social stereotypes with her actions and transcended gender with her writing. Her Daar Se Bichhuri (1958) was adapted to stage in 2010 by Anjana Rajan, who was also in charge of concept, choreography and direction. K.S. Rajendran was the co-director and Sudha Raghuraman’s music added to the value of the production. Daar Se Bichhuri, translated as Memory's Daughter by Smita Bharti and Meenakshi Bharadwaj, was about conversion and honour killing. The story, penned immediately after Partition, related the plight of a young girl who escapes from the clutches of her male family members. She elopes with a man from the Khoja community. Daar Se Bichhuri could as well have been about contemporary incidents in Haryana or Rajasthan.

The interplay of freedom and expression of a daughter-in-law, established norms and an individual’s desire to defy it all was in full play in Mitro Marjani (1966), translated into English as To Hell with You Mitro by Gita Rajan and Raji Narsimhan. In Surajmukhi Andhere Ke (1972)—translated as Sunflowers of the Dark by Pamela Manasi—she talked about a woman’s struggle to come to terms with abuse at a young age. Surajmukhi resonates with contemporary themes and movements such as the MeToo campaign.

Not only did Krishna Sobti etch out strong female characters comfortable with their sexuality and at ease with the expression of their desire, she even wrote under a male pen name, Hashmat. Although she gave up the pretence soon enough, she was never ever happy to be considered a woman writer or an author dealing with women’s literature. She was just a writer who happened to be a woman. After all, nobody called Nirmal a male writer. In her recent autobiographical work, Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan Tak, there is that abiding longing to belong, a wistfulness at what was and what has become. There was not a note of self-pity as back then, according to Krishna Sobti, people were both hardy and strong-willed.

With three more books on the anvil, there are no full stops in Krishna Sobti’s life. The Jnanpith Award is just a small reason to smile between writing the first line of a new work, imparting it life, taking care of it like a mother, until the final manuscript is completed. That is when she stops reading her draft. It has been that way for more than 70 years.